Automation: Processors concerned about investment return

By staff reporter

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Automation Investment Robot Uk

UK processors fail to exploit automation and robotics handling,
mainly due to concerns about the costs, return on investment and a
shortage of trained engineers, according to an industry survey.

The survey set out to explore why - despite being the UK's largest manufacturing sector - the food industry invests comparatively little in automation compared to its counterparts in other industries.

Cost reduction was seen by the survey respondents as the major reason for investment - and also the biggest perceived barrier due to difficulties in calculating a good return.

Growing global competition and pricing pressures from retailers are driving some food processors to invest in the latest technology, including automation, robotics, and radio frequency identification.

Manufacturers turn to automation and robotics as a means of speeding up lines, making production more efficient and reducing labour costs.

The survey was conducted in association with the British Automation and Robotics Association, Food Processing Faraday Partnership and the North West Food Alliance. It was sponsored by RTS Flexible Systems. The survey aims to stimulate interest in the food manufacturing sector about automation and robotics.

Half the sample were currently using automated handling systems. Most of the senior engineering personnel in UK food companies interviewed for the survey believe that market pressures will prompt the industry to turn more to automation within the next five years or so, said the industry groups behind the survey.

The key driver behind investment in the technologies was seen as the opportunity to reduce costs, particularly by replacing labour, eliminated mundane manual tasks and risks of repetitive strain injuries.

The potential for production efficiencies through consistency, repeatability and increased throughput was well recognised by respondents, who also saw the potential for automation to help improve hygiene, health and safety.

"There are clearly some real opportunities for those companies with vision to get ahead and steal competitive advantage,"​ Bradford stated.

The survey indicates that the industry could benefit by developing new methodologies for justifying return on investment (ROI) in automation projects to take account of their full commercial impact, he said.

Justifying the cost of an investment in automation did not always fit a company's standard ROI expectations, according to some of those interviewed. Automation systems would go ahead providing the company's financial and senior management could see a straightforward pay-back, most commonly within two and three years.

"Rather than calculating on straight labour replacement, a well-planned and specified automation project is likely to demonstrate other benefits, for example, increased throughput, reduced waste or improved yield on raw materials,"​ Bradford stated.

The survey also revealed a strong feeling that short-term contracts and cost-squeezing from retailers were a disincentive to investment. Nearly everyone agreed that more long-term relationships between retailers and their suppliers would trigger more investment in automation, the survey reported.

However, a few companies said they were in talks with retailers about longer-term partnerships.

People felt strongly that 'stop-start' contract relationships with retailers were holding companies back from investing in automation. The suggestion was - in essence - that the supermarkets were putting up barriers to reducing their own costs.

About 400 senior industry engineers and decision makers in the industry participated in interviews for the survey. Those interviewed came from manufacturers representing both the branded product market and independent producers.

The survey revealed a widespread perception that there was a shortage of professional engineers with established food industry knowledge and experience in automation technology. While engineers could be recruited from other industries, particularly automotive, training and development of good quality engineers is seen as a key driver for future investment.

The survey also showed that respondents believed that cost reduction was a key driver for investment in automation, particularly saving on labour costs. When prompted, respondents were able to recognise the potential of automation to increase capacity, improve hygiene and protect personnel health and safety.

"The good news was that there were no absolute barriers to automation,"​ Bradford stated. "Our conclusion was that many barriers identified can be overcome with greater knowledge of the opportunities that robotic and automated technologies now afford. There are some applications which will never be suitable for automation, but with developing technology and reduced equipment costs, the versatility and flexibility of robotics is increasing all the time."

A separate study released by the University of Warwick this week found that UK small businesses are failing to exploit a significant fall in price of industrial robots at a time when US figures are showing record sales of robots to US small businesses.

The survey, produced by British Automation and Robot Association, shows a continuing trend for robot prices to fall. The majority of units installed last year cost less than £30k.

There is also an increasing trend for robots to be refurbished and reused when their initial function is obsolete. These refurbished units make the technology available at below £10k in many cases.

Despite this robot sales in the UK in 2005 were static with very few sales to small companies. By contrast data collected in the US is showing record robot sales with an overall 30 per cent growth in robot sales and in particular major growth in sales to small businesses.

For a copy of the RTS survey, contact the company at 0161 7772000 or email

Related topics Processing & packaging

Related news

Show more

Follow us


View more